WINNIPEG, Manitoba – You might not know it based on the lines of questioning the players are facing, but the United States begins its 2015 Women’s World Cup campaign on Monday against Australia.
Peppered with media inquiries about FIFA’s corruption scandal, artificial turf and, on Sunday, a new report detailing domestic violence allegations against goalkeeper Hope Solo, the U.S. women can finally do what they’ve been saying they want to do all along: play soccer.
“We’re really focused on the Australia game,” veteran U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. “We’re excited about the game tomorrow. You may or may not believe it, you may think that we are being advised not to talk, but the reality is that we are so excited. We finally feel like the World Cup is here. We’ve waited for years. We’ve waited for so long.”
Winning their first World Cup in 16 years will require the Americans to go through the tournament’s toughest group, Group D, which features three teams in the top 10 of the world ranking: No. 2 USA, No. 5 Sweden, No. 10 Australia and No. 33 Nigeria, Africa’s top team.
“You would be surprised at how normal life is right now,” Wambach said. “We had a fantastic session, everyone is happy in the locker room. All of our focus is on what we individually can do to help our team win games, and what we can do tomorrow – individually, what we can do tomorrow to help our team beat Australia.”
The biggest on-field question surrounding the U.S. women is the status of Alex Morgan, who will be available for selection according to both player and coach, Jill Ellis. Morgan hasn’t played a competitive match since April 11.
“If called upon to start, I’d be ready to start,” Morgan said Sunday after participating in training with tape on her left knee. A bone bruise has kept her out for the past two months; she doesn’t know how she incurred the injury.
Australia is winless in 24 matches against the United States, having picked up only two draws a decade ago.
But the Matildas, ranked No. 10 in the world, are more experienced than ever despite their youth. Their average age is under 25 years old, but 13 players are returning from the 2011 World Cup, where Australia made the quarterfinals.
“A lot of us were just kids back then, including myself,” says 21-year-old Sam Kerr, who was a teenager in Germany four years ago.
The Matildas are confident in their abilities despite being underdogs in what has been dubbed the Group of Death. Australia’s front line is arguably the fastest in the world, with captain Lisa De Vanna leading the charge. Kerr is also a big reason for that lethal Australia attack – and she knows it.
“We’ve got a lot of speed up front, it’s no secret,” she said. “We’re a speedy team and I think everyone knows that. We’ve got great midfielders. Just if we stick to our gameplan, we think we have the patience and the ability to break any team down.”
Australia’s speed will require some tactical adjustments from the United States defense, which often deploys a system that sees fullbacks Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg push forward, high into the attack. That may need adjusting on Monday.
“You always have to be aware of who you are playing against,” said U.S. center back Becky Sauerbrunn, who turned 30 years old on Saturday. “The back line, if we are aware a team has a lot of speed, we are going to try to keep most of the play in front of us and protect the space behind. So if we have to adjust our team defense lower, we’ll do that. But most teams that we’ve played against have fast forwards, so it’s something that we’ve seen a lot this year.”
Sauerbrunn played with De Vanna in the last professional league, WPS, and she’s well aware of the danger presented by the Australian.
“You always have to be aware of where she is on the field,” Sauebrunn says of De Vanna. “She’s got good feet and at times she’s pretty spontaneous. You don’t know what you are going to get out of her because I don’t think that she knows what she is about to do, either.”
Ellis isn’t overly concerned with Australia’s speed, citing matches over the past six months against world No. 3 France and No. 7 Brazil, both of whom possess agility up front.
“They are very athletic up front and they like to press,” Ellis said. “But yeah, I think I’m confident in the players I have. We’ve played up against a lot of teams that have pace in Brazil, in France and even New Zealand has some good pace. So we are used to having some good speed, but it is certainly something we have to acknowledge and take care of.”
Obtaining 3 points in the opener will be essential for the Americans to obtain the most favorable path to the final. Winning the group means a Round of 16 match against a third-place group finisher in Edmonton, Alberta, not far from the site of their final group game in Vancouver, British Columbia. Finishing second would mean the U.S. would have to fly cross-country to Moncton, New Brunswick – over 3,500 miles – on a day less rest for a game that would likely be against Brazil.
The U.S. finished second to Sweden in group play in 2011 but advanced to the final, losing to Japan on penalty kicks. Wambach knows how vital the early points will be to finish top.
“We need to not only get points, but score goals, so that if something terrible were to happen later on in our group, we would go through in a different fashion,” she said.
For Wambach & Co., the long wait ends on Monday.